Gilligan begins 28-year drugs sentence

Thursday 15 March 2001 22.05
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John Gilligan, Found not guilty of ordering murder
John Gilligan, Found not guilty of ordering murder
Veronica Guerin, Murdered in June 1996
Veronica Guerin, Murdered in June 1996

John Gilligan has begun serving a 28-year prison sentence at Mountjoy jail after his conviction by the Special Criminal Court for importing cannabis resin. His solicitor says that he will appeal. He was found not guilty of the 1996 murder of Veronica Guerin. Mr Gilligan's 28-year sentence is a new record for drugs offences. Prior to today, the record was a 22-year sentence imposed on Edward 'Judd' Scanlan at Cork Circuit Criminal Court in 1999 for possession of ecstasy and cocaine for sale or supply. Before that, the record was a 20-year sentence imposed on Tony Felloni in Dublin for heroin dealing.

Although the Special Criminal Court said that there were grave suspicions against him regarding the murder, it was not persuaded beyond reasonable doubt. He was also acquitted of charges of possession of arms. Mr Gilligan was told that he had displayed insatiable greed and had shown no remorse. He was extradited to Dublin from Britain last February, and had denied ordering Ms Guerin's murder.

Mr Justice O'Donovan said that there was no doubt that Mr Gilligan had reaped staggering profits of many millions of pounds from his activities. He accused him of insatiable greed and said that he had shown no expression of remorse. The judge said that Gilligan may have a "fortune of ill-gotten gains hidden away," but that it was unlikely that he would have the chance to enjoy it. The sentence is to be backdated to 1996.

Mr Justice O'Donovan's earlier ruling was met with silence throughout the courtroom. He found John Gilligan, the third man to stand trial for this murder, not guilty. He said that, for the events of that day, 26 June 1996, the court had only the word of Russell Warren. It was clear, he said, that Russell Warren, a witness protected by the State, was a self-serving liar whose evidence could not be relied on without corroboration and that corroboration did not exist. Russell Warren told the court that he witnessed the murder and he phoned John Gilligan, who was accused of masterminding it, to tell him that it had happened.

If this was true, then there was no doubt that John Gilligan had played a pivotal role, the judge said, but there was no-one to corroborate Russell Warren's account and his account differed from other eye witnesses say they saw. The judge said that they had a grave suspicion, but that was not enough. For nearly three years, the sun shone on Mr Gilligan and his drugs empire. Although he has been found not guilty of the murder of Veronica Guerin, the investigation which followed was the undoing of his multi million pound operation and changed gangland forever. Today's judgement means serious questions remain.

Born in Ballyfermot, Mr Gilligan became a career criminal with his first conviction at 15. It was in Portlaoise Prison in 1993 that he met Brian Meehan and Paul Ward and the gang was born. They began importing cigarettes, but soon graduated to drugs. Tonnes of cannabis, originating in Morocco, were shipped through Amsterdam to Cork. Finglas-born John Dunne was the shipping executive who arranged for consignments to be attributed to bogus companies. The drugs were moved to Dublin to this lock up in Harold's Cross. It became his cannabis hub, with its own customer accounts system.

Charles Bowden and Paul Ward were the couriers, delivering to wholesalers and handling the cash. Russell Warren was the bagman, regularly travelling to Amsterdam to pay off suppliers. As the cash rolled in, the Gilligans turned their 100-acre Jessbrook home into an equestrian centre, training the children of respectable society and mingling with the horseracing set. Their own racehorse, Rifiwan, even won at Naas and Punchestown. Gardaí estimate that over 20,000 kilos were brought through cork yielding a net profit of over £14m. Soon the gang was awash with money, laundering it in Amsterdam through bureaux de change and casinos. At times they struggled to hide hundreds of thousands of pounds under beds and in laundry baskets.

Designer clothes, expensive cars and exotic foreign holidays followed. Brian Meehan stashed £600,000 in a Vienna Bank account. In 1995, Operation Pineapple was set up to build up intelligence on the gang. It was around this time that Veronica Guerin began probing Mr Gilligan through a key gang member who was happy to describe the lurid portrait of a criminal life.

She wrote to Mr Gilligan asking him to explain his lifestyle. She later made a statement to Gardaí that, when she turned up at Jessbrook, Mr Gilligan viciously assaulted her. After her death, the charge was struck out. The prosecution argued that gang members Charles Bowden and Russell Warren were the vital link between John Gilligan and the murder on the Naas Road in June 1996.

Today's verdict means that core truth surrounding her murder remains elusive. It will be a bitter blow to the Gardaí who at one stage had over 100 on the case. Amid the outcry over her death Gardaí launched a broad investigation despite the media focus on Mr Gilligan. From 1,400 interviews, there were 214 arrests and 39 convictions. One hundred guns were recovered. Some £5m worth of drugs were seized, and the Criminal Assets Bureau hauled in £6.5m worth of property.

In a statement today, the Gardaí said the fact that John Gilligan had been convicted of serious crimes which formed part of the investigation into the murder of Veronica Guerin marked a successful phase in the investigation of organised crime in this country. They said that the investigation into Ms Guerin's death had not concluded and would be pursued with determination and vigour to its conclusion.

The investigation first spelt discomfort, then doom for Mr Gilligan's nine-man gang. Paul Ward, who provided and disposed of the bike, was given life for murder, as was Brian Meehan who drove the bike. Mr Meehan's father and uncle were jailed for five and two years for money laundering. State witnesses Russell Warren and Charles Bowden were jailed for five and six years for money laundering, drugs and firearms charges, and John Dunne was imprisoned for three years for importing cannabis. Another associate, Patrick Holland, was jailed for 20 years, reduced to eight for possession of cannabis.